Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse and the research of the higher self

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‘The day had gone by just as days go by’

Since the first sentence in Steppenwolf, we can realize that Hermann Hesse didn’t have a spiritual and peaceful life in those days.

Biographically speaking, it is important to say that Hesse received form his parents a strict education, adverse to any artistic ambition. When he was fifteen, he suffered from depression and, during the period when he attended the seminary, he even attempted to commit suicide: this episode marked his existence forever. He received a rigid education from the institute, and after the studies, he started a job as a clockmaker, but in the meantime he discovers his grandfather’st vast library: he reads Goethe, Dostoevsky, Schiller and Novalis. He moves to Basel, where he marries a woman with whom he will have three children.

Three phenomena covers a fundamental importance in Hesse’s works: the difficulties related to the family sphere (the difficult relationship with the wife having mental problems, the death of the father and the illness of one of the three childrens), the impatience for the sedentary life that will lead him to undertake the journey to Orient, and the outbreak of the First World War. The problem with the family will lead him into a state of profound depression and then to the consultation of a psychoanalyst, but above all to study the matter. In fact, Hesse’s works before this period can be defined “neo-romantic”, influenced by the literary fashions of the time (Peter Camenzind) and mostly critical to a school educational system which was extremely repressive, surrounded by the noisy bourgeois echo (Beneath The Wheel).

Hermann Hesse

As mentioned, his works had a revolution after studying psychoanalysis, in fact Demian is a clear example of adherence to it. The topics are the same (the distinction between good and evil, the refusal of bourgeois society and the homesickness of childhood), but addressed with a new awareness.

Subsequently it is in Siddhartha that experiences like travel to India and familiarity with the Indian and oriental religions, philosophies and literatures take place. More than any other, this is the novel about self-seeking, the identification of the ego.

But it’s in Steppenwolf that the attempts to find and overcome the ego are emphasized. The novel has an unusual structure and it is divided into three different parts:

  1. Prefaces of the curator
  2. Memoirs of the protagonist, followed by the “Dissertation on the Steppenwolf”
  3. Introduction to “magical theater”

It is a threefold perspective that recalls an expressionist experiment. In fact it could also be understood as a kind of bildungroman (novel of formation) that narrates the events of a fifty-years old, Harry Haller (the name of the protagonist has the same initials as those of the author), split between two worlds, always different and opposed: civilization and nature, spirit and instinct, bourgeoisie and proletarian, man and wolf. Through this awareness that compels him to unpleasant situations, he begins to mature the idea of ending his pains by killing himself.


In the introductory part of the book, Harry wanders desperate and alone in an unidentified German city. A stranger in the middle of the night, however, gives him a booklet that he will open once he comes home. This is entitled: “Treatise of the Steppenwolf (For Madmen Only)”, a essay of twenty pages that should be read in full. Here some of the main points:

“There was once a man, Harry, called the steppenwolf. He went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being, but nevertheless he was in reality a wolf of the steppes. He had learned a good deal of all that people of a good intelligence can, and was a fairly clever fellow. What he had not learned, however, was this: to find contentment in himself and his own life.”

“When Harry the man has a pleasant thought, or feels a fine, noble feeling, or raises up a so-called achievement, then the wolf sinks his teeth into him and with murderous derision shows him how absurd this whole noble theatre of the steppe animal appears to be, and the wolf knows exactly what the answer is, and what pleases him, namely to trot alone through the steppes, at times to swill blood, or hunt a she-wolf.”

“There appear to be quite a few people of Harry’s sort; many, especially artists, are like this. These types all have two souls, two beings inside them; in them is the godlike and the demonic, in them runs both maternal and paternal, in them is the capacity for pleasure and the capacity for suffering, likewise antagonistic and confused, present side by side and next to each other, as wolf and man were in Harry. These people, whose life is so restless, occasionally experience in their rare moments of pleasure something so strong and so unspeakably beautiful – the froth of these moments of bliss splashes so high and so dazzlingly over the sea of suffering – that these brief flashes of good fortune shine forth, and others are touched and bewitched by them.”

“The “suicides” – and Harry was one of them – do not need to die to have a close relationship to death: this one can do without being a “suicide”. However, it is characteristic of the “suicide” that in himself, whether rightly or wrongly – it does not matter – is carried the seed of an especially perilous and dubious nature, so that it seems he is always extraordinarily exposed and precarious perched, as if he stood on the narrowest crag, where only a small nudge from without, or only a slight weakness from within, would suffice to pitch him into the abyss.”

“The Steppenwolf stood, according to his own conception, completely outside the bourgeois world, and knew neither family life nor social ambition. He felt himself to be an absolutely singular, at times eccentric and morbid recluse, and at times a pathologically normal, genially down-to-earth individual in respect to the common standards of the average life.”

“Only humour, the superb discovery of those whose vocation is to the greatest self-consciousness, to the highest and most heartfelt, to the most abundant wretchedness – only humour, perhaps the truest and most cheerful capacity of mankind, achieves the impossible, pulling together and unifying all precincts of human experience with its kaleidoscopic radiance. To live in the world, as though it were not the world; to obey and to protect the law; to possess, as though there were no possession; to renounce, as though there were no renunciation – all these oft formulated accounts of the way to a higher plane of living are really only possible because of humour.

“The world knows neither above, nor below. So it is also the case, to state briefly, that the “Steppenwolf” is such a fiction. When Harry senses that he is the wolf-man and thinks he exists as two mutually antagonistic and contradictory beings, it is merely an oversimplified myth. Harry really is no such wolf-man. When we see him as a double personality, when we regard and interpret him as a Steppenwolf as a result of his own contrived and delusional lies, so we take advantage of, and get carried away, by the hope of an easier coming to terms with the delusion, the rectification of which we shall now attempt.”


From the Treatise, four principles points emerge and accompany the whole novel:

  • The conception of the Steppenwolf as a man oriented to create, to convert his nature his own life into an art piece, a continuous movement that oscillates among more states of mind, a wandering in the silence of solitude, a beauty of every moment, a perpetual pursuit of the absolute living and dying and staying in eternity.
  • The (partial) detachment from the bourgeois world. For all his life, Hesse hated the integration on a world which, according to him, is nothing more than an attempt to balance, the aspiration to a middle way between the countless extremes and opposite poles of human nature. Man has the opportunity to bring the whole himself to the spirit, trying to approach the divinity. Conversely, he can be entirely oriented to the instinctive life, to the desire of the senses. The bourgeois, according to him, tries to live in the middle between one and the other. “He is seeking to settle in the middle, between extremes, in an agreeable and wholesome refuge from gale and storm; and he has got this at the cost of any intensity of living or intensity of sensation: such is conferred on the life lived without recourse to absolutes and extremes. The intense life is only lived at some cost to the self. The bourgeois treasures nothing more than the self (a very rudimentarily developed self at that). He attains constancy and security at the cost of intensity; instead of an obsession with God he has an easy conscience; instead of desire, comfort; instead of freedom, ease; instead of a murderous fire, a pleasing warmth. That is why the bourgeois is a weak-willed creature; anxious, afraid of every disclosure about himself, easy to control. And that is why he has aligned himself with the strength of the majority, on the side of the rule of law, to accountability through the ballot box.
  • Humor: the most ingenious and singular invention of all mankind, is the only way of escape for those men who remain bound, like Harry, to the ingenuity of the bourgeoisie. This idea is, in some way, bourgeois, although the latter (the bourgeoisie) is incapable of understanding and perceiving it.
  • The last point is strongly influenced by Hesse’s approach, with the psychoanalysis and philosophy we already mentioned. The ego is not a single form but a multifaceted layer of multiple unidentifiable and inadequate elements. Nietzsche and Schopenhauer have conditioned him.


The tale actually takes a positive turn when Harry knows a woman with ambiguous traits: Hermine. The latter is very similar to the Steppenwolf, not only because is the feminine of the name Hermann, but it seems to be the transfiguration of the protagonist in terms of simplicity, instinct, and ability to see the deepest desires of Harry. The woman holds in the novel even the role of the wise: “I want to tell you something today, something that I have known for a long while, and you know it too; but perhaps you have never said it to yourself. I am going to tell you now what it is that I know about you and me and our fate. You, Harry, have been an artist and a thinker, a man full of joy and faith, always on the track of what is great and eternal, never content with the trivial and petty. But the more life has awakened you and brought you back to yourself, the greater has you need been and the deeper the sufferings and dread and despair that have overtaken you, till you were up to your neck in them… You have a picture of life within you, a faith, a challenge, and you were ready for deeds and sufferings and sacrifices, and then you became aware by degrees that the world asked no deeds and no sacrifices of you whatever, and that life is no poem of heroism with heroic parts to play and so on, but a comfortable room where people are quite content with eating and drinking, coffee and knitting, cards and wireless. And whoever wants more and has got it in him—the heroic and the beautiful, and the reverence for the great poets or for the saints—is a fool and a Don Quixote.”

The girl introduces him to his friend Pablo, who plays the saxophone in little bands, and has always some drugs for friends. He doesn’t really care about music. Afterwards, an agreement is signed between Hermine and Harry: she wants him to fall in love with her, and after that he will have to kill her. “You won’t find it easy, but you will do it. You will carry out my command and—kill me. There—ask no more.”


And here is the last act, the Magic Theatre, in which Hesse succeeds in perfectly merging a dreamlike and transcendental vision, into a vision of reality, although theoretical and abstract.

The visit to the theatre begins at the end of a masquerade evening, when Pablo calls Hermine and Harry in a room where there are an incredible number of doors.

Here are the doors that Harry gradually found himself opening:


In each of them the protagonist finds himself in a different situation. The first is a room where a war situation is simulated: cars crashing against pedestrians and men shooting at aircraft. In the second one, a man gives Harry the cards where on each of them is drawn a trait of the personality belonging to the wolf. In the third one, a scene is described where a man holds a completely harmless wolf, who doesn’t care about the goat and the hare near to him and prefers to eat chocolate; but in a second scene the parties are inverted, now the wolf is leading the man and, once he sees the animals, his carnivorous spirit arises.

In the fourth door Harry meets delightfully and pleasantly all the loves of his life, passing with them fantastic and alive moments. But it is in the fifth room that Hermine’s vision is accomplished. Harry has at first a discussion with Mozart, but then a picture of nudes who looks alive appears in front of him. They are Pablo and Hermine in a hug. So the man takes a knife out of his pocket and kills the lover. In the sixth door the court will say this: “Gentlemen, before you stands Harry Haller, accused and found guilty of the wanton misuse of our magic theatre. Haller has not only libelled great art, inasmuch as he confused our beautiful portrait gallery with so-called reality and stabbed to death a non-existent girl with a non-existent knife, and above all else it was his intention to use our theatre as a mechanism in the service of his own humourless attempts at suicide. Consequently, we condemn Haller to a sentence of eternal life and a twelve-hour revocation of his authorization to enter our theatre.”


In a final note to his readers, Hesse specifies that, beyond the wolf and its difficulties, beyond the negativity, the novel talks about the higher, immortal universe of spirit, art and smile, which present a positive world against the world of the wolf. This isn’t the book of a desperate man. It’s the book of a man who will be reborn.


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